On July 8, 2018, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber left the House for all Sinners and Saints, an 11-year-old Denver church she had founded, in order to follow her calling to become a full-time public theologian (The Christian Century, 2018). Known for writing bestsellers like Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint and Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Bolz-Weber continues to preach unpretentiously through storytelling in her fifth book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. This book is filled with the conscientious and diligent work of a true prophetic public theologian. Shameless does the work of public theology in the way it questions and critiques our Christian culture amidst the wider secular society by lifting up perspectives of those that do not fit in with that culture, while still reflecting theologically on new ways of coming together. Those that are unfamiliar with Bolz-Weber’s prior works might expect the same, old remarketed evangelical, but “cool” Christian living publication: a book with a rebellious, catchy title and cover with content that seemingly questions traditional Christian values by saying a few subversive things, but that ultimately comes to the conclusion that the church’s current sexual ethics are based on “clear” bible-based lines drawn in the sand- and woe to you if you find yourself on the other side of them! Lucky for us this is not that book! Bolz-Weber engages with and pushes back against the antiquated notions of early church fathers and reimagines biblical creation narratives and Jesus’ incarnational journey in a way which help us reconsider the things we were always taught were true and holy. Her urgent argument is that “we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings” (Bolz-Weber, 2019, p. 5).
Bolz-Weber does not set out to address every sexual experience, but rather centers the intimate, honest stories from a few people in the community of House for all Sinners and Saints and juxtaposes them with various theological positions, scriptures and poetry. After hearing the stories of her congregants and walking alongside them as they seek healing and wholeness, Bolz-Weber comes to the conclusion, which is the motivation for this book, that “when the boundaries, protections, and rules become more important than the sacred thing they are intended to protect, casualties ensue” (Bolz-Weber, p. 22). Through humor, grace, and sincerity, these chapters critique the pressures of purity culture, our dignity and concern for one another, gender roles, orientation, abortion, comprehensive sex education, pornography and much more. The book is not designed so that the reader can flip to the chapters pertaining to each topic and find easy answers to a Christian sexuality litmus test. The book is instead structured like an immersive, beautiful worship service in which we are reminded that we are created and loved by God the way we are, and that there are many ways to remain faithful at every turn and every test.
The title “Shameless” is not about condoning sin or having an “anything goes” attitude as many of Bolz-Weber’s critics presume. It is instead about acknowledging that the gift of our sexuality is indeed good, but can be tricky. No matter where you find yourself, there is not one of us that does not bear the scars of repeatedly trying to be this ideal sexual self that is simply not attainable. The good news is that we don’t need to hide our scars in shame, since “God isn’t waiting for (us) to become thinner or heterosexual or married or celibate or more ladylike or less crazy or more spiritual or less of an alcoholic in order to love (us)” (Bolz-Weber, pp. 180-181). If we repent for listening to all the voices that have told us that we are not good because we don’t fit into the stringent, exclusive, small moral idea of sexuality that is the Christian norm, then we can turn around and live as our actual, non-idealized selves and be open to thinking new thoughts and new possibilities we’ve never considered- thus, a reformation (Bolz-Weber, p. 183)
What might be frustrating to some is that the “reformation” part of this book is still very under-developed, but it is new. We know that there are people in our own communities that are reeling from child abuse scandals in their churches, being rejected from a proper calling in ministry due to their sexuality, being denied the covenant of marriage because of whom they love, and many more things that are hard to heal from with our current sexual ethic. What a lot of us know for sure is that something has got to give because the hard and fast doctrinal rules and ideas we have grown up with in the church are hurting and killing us. We must be open to dealing with the gray areas of sexual ethics from a people-centered perspective and Bolz-Weber takes a great first step in presenting a glimpse of what that might look like. The bottom line is this: if you’re expecting a new list of sexual dos and don’ts for the modern Christian, this book is not for you (although I hope you still read it). If you are instead looking to be challenged to consider a more dialogical ethic of concern, this book is for you. Shameless is for anyone who has been “hurt by the church’s broader teachings or hurt by our inability to even talk about sex at all,” (Bolz-Weber, p. 8) and it is certainly for those of us that are grateful that the tradition of reformation is still alive and well.
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber was published on January 29, 2019 by Convergent Books, a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC (ISBN 978-1-60142-758-8). You may purchase a copy here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/247945/shameless-by-nadia-bolz-weber/9781601427588/
Bolz-Weber, N. (2019). Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. New York: Convergent Books.
The Christian Century. (2018, August 7). Nadia Bolz-Weber embarks upon being a full-time public theologian. Retrieved from The Christian Century: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/people/nadia-bolz-weber-embarks-upon-being-full-time-public-theologian
Janine Carambot Santoro is an Associate Chaplain at St. Luke’s University Hospital and a Library Technician at Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div from Drew Theological School (NJ). Her recent research interests include public theology, Christian ethics, and pedagogies of healing. She currently enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and creating curriculum and workshops for sacred, (w)holistic work to be done in secular places.